The koi and the dragon.

In Japanese mythology, there is a great story about an especially determined koi fish who battled the mighty currents to swim upstream on the Yellow River. According to legend, once in a great while, an extraordinarily dedicated koi would be able to succeed in leaping the waterfall at the point called Dragon’s Gate. Once that extraordinary leap was made, the koi would be transformed into a mighty dragon. This transformation was seen as both an acknowledgement of his sacrifice and perseverance, as well as a just reward. After that, the powerful dragon could take flight over the tumultuous Yellow River below.

I’ve written a lot about our pilgrimage from the depths of addiction — and all of its related unhealthy enmeshments — into recovery. It’s been a journey of challenge and unanticipated heartbreak, but it has also given us each a clear sense of purpose, a new-found perseverance, and the kind of internal growth that only seems to happen in the midst of adversity. Through it, we have experienced countless opportunities for great transformation.

For my wife, the transformation is obvious. Once plagued by a series of addictions and haunted by insecurities, she shed the crippling shackles of addiction and discovered a new life of sobriety and self-determination. Her journey continues on, of course, as all of our journeys do, but she has managed to tap in to an ability to remarkably remake the structure of her life, brick by brick, day by day. Through it all, and maybe even because of it all, she has been the very embodiment of persevering courage.

tattooAs we now know, the simple truth of addiction is that it affects everyone in its wake in some way, which means that the “road to recovery” doesn’t just involve the addict. As a result, I’ve been on a journey, too, full of its own twists and turns and — hopefully — renewal.

First and foremost were the relationship challenges, many of them documented here on this blog, that faced us once my wife made the decision to address her addictions. We had to learn a new way to communicate, to relate, and to live. But the predicament of my personal journey also had little to do with my wife or the challenges of her new-found sobriety. The reality of my wife’s addiction and recovery served simply as a spotlight on the facets of my own life that needed work.

Of course, there was also my physical health to contend with. While I’d been dealing with a variety of heart issues since my teenage years, the medications that were such a part of my life had become wholly ineffective, prompting an abrupt and unavoidable change in course. Today, I’m six years out from a tedious summer of heart surgeries and physical recovery (you can read about it here). While I accept that I still have another heart surgery to contend with at some point in the future, I feel fortunate to have made the progress required to get to this point. Frankly, I feel blessed to have a future at all.

Then, this past fall, I started the process of two very outward transformations. First, I decided to get on the offense with regard to my weight. It was something that had been bothering me for a while — the slow addition of a handful of pounds, year after year — and the time had finally come to make some significant changes to my diet and my lifestyle. I’d like to tell you that it was a decision borne of positive energy and deep reflection, but the truth is far more vain. I saw a picture of a group of my friends and couldn’t figure out who the fat ass was in the black polo shirt. Then I realized that fat ass was me. So, I cut out the artificial sugars (I was a diehard Diet Coke addict of the 20+ cans/day variety), eliminated the fast food habit, started taking yoga, and doing a little bit of jogging and exercise. It’s been a great — and sometimes, really really difficult — experience, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made.

Secondly, there was my desire to document this whole journey in some meaningful way. So, late last fall, I started working with a local tattoo artist to create something I’d been contemplating for years… a full sleeve tattoo. It’s a project that now, six months later, is almost complete. Not everyone likes or understands the whole tattoo thing, I realize, but for me, there’s something incredibly meaningful about having this piece on my arm. It honors and remembers the struggle, while at the same time, gives me hope and reminds me of the work yet to be done. It is both an acknowledgement and my accountability.

I’ve always loved that little piece of Japanese lore, both for its imagery and for its implied promise. In many ways, it’s been the story of our journey. And so now, it will be the account — my “living, breathing portable story,” as a good friend described it — told on my arm.

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The Threshold of the Dragon’s Gate

Beneath the serene quiet of the water lilies
a young carp senses a calling . . . swelling up in her heart
like the swirling waters at the base of a great waterfall,
Somehow summoned to go beyond the barrier
of crashing water and veiled mist
The churning waters of the waterfall’s bottom
matches that of the young carp’s desires

Finally with a burst of enthusiasm the carp has launched herself
up the wall of rushing water
cresting the first falls with a surge of effort
only to be met with relentless rushing water.
Persevering from one cataract to the next
the carp makes it to the summit’s last falls.
Regrouping her energies in a pocket of scouring effervescence
every essence of strength, courage, and spirit is consumed
in the launching over the fall’s summit.

And the dragon’s gate accepts her efforts a transforming gate of fire
Revealing the birth of a new Dragon
born of the seed of desire planted in the heart of a small carp
that once hid in the shallows.

–Howard Schroeder

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The Leopard Princess.

leopardsuperheroThe polite word to describe her would be “eccentric.” In reality, she was a plump woman well into her 60s, decked out in bad blond hair extensions, coke bottle lens glasses, and animal printed frocks from head to toe. On one occasion, I distinctly remember that she was wearing what can only be described as a superhero cape. Except that it was in leopard print, of course. She blew her nose constantly into a pile of used Kleenex she kept at her side, drank lord-knows-what from an enormous thermos, and seemed to get lost in her own thoughts as a matter of sport. She was, for that brief moment in time, my therapist. And, if we’re being honest, she might have saved my life.

For the most part, I’d lived pretty decisively, believing that life was but a series of choices and intentions. Make good choices, get good outcomes. Bad outcomes, it seemed clear at the time, were due to bad choice making. It was all in our control, I would argue, all a matter of deciding on the correct path at the exactly right time. Practice would and should make perfect. In my mind, we were living a grand “Choose Your Own Adventure” story and every turn of the page was a matter of deliberate intention.

Yet, when I ended up in the office of the Leopard Princess, it was clear that I was floundering. Emotionally threadbare and in a manic-fueled exhaustion, I’d stop making all decisions because it had become alarmingly clear that I was in control of absolutely nothing. Obviously, this was no longer the adventure of my choosing. What I wasn’t cognizant of at the time, though, was how much I had succumbed to the fear. I allowed myself to fully lean into it, losing all sense of perspective with the sort of spacial disorientation that causes one to confuse up with down. I didn’t know how to turn that next page, but even more than that, I was scared to try because I was sure that the page I’d find might be The End.

We’d been to a series of “professionals” during my wife’s journey from addiction into sobriety. First, there were a variety of addiction specialists, appropriately focused on the disease that was ravaging my wife, each relegating my floundering to back burner status. They were followed by a disastrous (!) experience with a church counselor and a catalog of faux-experts from various twelve step groups. It wasn’t until we ended up in the office of the Leopard Princess, though — my wife newly in sobriety, but deeper than ever in turmoil — that I felt like someone recognized the mess I’d become in the process.

On our second or third visit, my wife was excused from the room. This would be the moment of my wake-up call. Yes, it was true that the situation was not of my choosing and yes, it was true that I didn’t have sole control over what might appear on life’s next page. I would have to surrender my naive ideas of the way things “should” be and instead realize that all I could control were my actions on that very day. It was time, the Leopard Princess would tell me, to draw a line in the sand. It was time to set a boundary and to bring that specific page to an end, come what may.

I won’t tell you that setting a boundary made everything instantly better, but I can say with some certainty that nothing about our slow downward spiral would have changed in its absence. It was a boundary for my relationship, sure, but it was also about giving notice to the darkness of my own fear. Boundaries, I would discover, were more about setting an endpoint for my own internal descent than they were about setting limits for the chaos around me. I could end my part. I could draw that line in the sand. It just took a bizarre superhero in a leopard cape to shine a light on the way forward.

In many ways, I’ve not ended up with the life I might have imagined at the beginning of our adventure together. There have been pages and chapters of this journey that remain, even to this day, difficult to go back and re-read. Painful as some of those experiences may have been, though, now punctuated by boundaries and their corresponding new beginnings, I know that we might not have ended up here without them.

And here is pretty fantastic.

Revisited.

It’s difficult to believe that a year has passed since I posted my first piece on addiction. It was never my intention to start a blog about addiction and recovery, much less to talk so openly about our experiences as a couple who survived the journey to addiction’s hell and back. That period of our lives was something I’d always guarded ferociously, justifying it by an all-important need to “protect our privacy,” but knowing that it was a lot more about protecting my ego.

Looking back, I’m still heartened by the response that my initial admission generated. People were unflinchingly supportive and generous, as I hoped they would be, but I was surprised even more  by the number of people who wrote to me about their own (often secret) struggles with addiction and its related heartache, either in their own lives or in the lives of someone held dear.

There’s a certain universality in battling and overcoming — and then sometimes, battling yet again — life’s great obstacles. For the first time since the whole experience began to unfold for us, I could appreciate the comfort in that universality.

One year and a couple dozen addiction-themed posts later, I thought I’d go back to the beginning and re-post my very first entry on the subject.

Lottery.

My wife is an addict.

There were a great many years when I wouldn’t have been able to type that sentence, much less express it publicly. Just the word addict was full of too much stigma, too much shame, and too much responsibility. So, I called it other things or, preferably, nothing at all. It was the topic that caused me to whisper, as if lowering the volume of our conversation would lessen the reality of it, as well.

To her credit, my wife began to wear the label long before I was comfortable with the sound of it. She attended meetings and added the clarifying “recovering,” but my discomfort remained. I worried about what other people would think, mostly because I was concerned that they would view the word — and as a result, my wife — through the same judgmental filter that I had. And then, if we’re being perfectly honest, how would that make them view me?

My wife would tell you that she knew she was an addict the first time the warmth of hard liquor hit the back of her throat. Something just clicked for her — something that never clicked for me, despite my most valiant efforts — and in that instant, her subconscious began to map out a destiny for her that would include some form of addiction. I’m not sure why that happens to some people and not to others. It’s a twisted lottery of sorts and you don’t know if you have the “winning” numbers unless you have the ticket in hand.

When Amy Winehouse, who was as famous for her substance abuse as she was for her musical ability, passed away in July, the comedian Russell Brand wrote a piece on her for The Guardian. Brand, a recovering addict himself, talked about the very nature of connection with someone in the throes of addiction.

“I was myself at that time barely out of rehab and was thirstily seeking less complicated women so I barely reflected on the now glaringly obvious fact that Winehouse and I shared an affliction, the disease of addiction. All addicts, regardless of the substance or their social status share a consistent and obvious symptom; they’re not quite present when you talk to them. They communicate to you through a barely discernible but unignorable veil. Whether a homeless smack head troubling you for 50p for a cup of tea or a coked-up, pinstriped exec foaming off about his speedboat, there is a toxic aura that prevents connection. They have about them the air of elsewhere, that they’re looking through you to somewhere else they’d rather be. And of course they are. The priority of any addict is to anaesthetise the pain of living to ease the passage of the day with some purchased relief.”

Brand’s words hit me sideways because they expressed an unspoken truth that I’d long known about loving addicts. I’ve always struggled with the disease model for addiction, popularized by 12 Step groups and the like, but it’s hard to deny the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms, whether you call it a disease or not. It’s easier to blame an addict who continues to use drugs in the face of unimaginable consequences, throwing emotional shrapnel at all those around him. Or maybe we just blame the addict for taking the very first drink, the one which started it all. No amount of blame we assign, though, will ever be able to compete with the shame they already feel.

Before our dear friend Michele passed away last year after her own lifetime of addiction struggles, we’d often talk about the “why.” Why was I able to walk away from the partying of my youth without a second thought, why was my wife blindsided by addiction for so many years only to then be able to walk a path into sobriety, and why was Michele seemingly unable to escape addiction’s grasp? It wasn’t a difference in will power or moral fortitude and it certainly wasn’t because one of us simply prayed harder than the other. I do know that shame somehow plays a part, as I don’t think any addict can reach a point of consistent recovery until he deals with the often self-imposed shame of his affliction, but even that does nothing to answer why some of us become addicts in the first place when others do not.

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with my two teenage nieces about life, high school, college… and, eventually, addiction. I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that most kids will “experiment” with alcohol or some sort of drug. The statistics are as staggering as they are depressing. As a parent, I’m sure I’d obsess about every instance of that experimentation, threatening all manner of hell-fire for each and every teenage stupidity. However, as an uncle, particularly an uncle who has walked a path alongside addiction’s casualties, I worry more about the lottery of it all, about the ticket purchased with that first drink or binge or blackout.

As fatalistic as this all seems at times, personal experience also tells me that there is hope and there can be recovery. Recovery is, at times, a hard-fought battle against insurmountable odds, but it’s a battle worth fighting. And it’s possible.

In the year since writing the above, I’ve gained such a profound appreciation for the importance of being open about our journey, wherever it takes us, warts and all. I’ve learned that in that openness, perhaps others can find comfort or even hope. And I’ve also learned that in that honest expression, another step toward healing reveals itself.

Remember, September is National Recovery Month. For more information on recovery resources and events in your area, please click here. To read more of my posts on addiction and recovery, please click here.

Sense memory.

I wish I could tell you that it was the first time I’d found my wife bloodied and broken — sometimes literally, often figuratively — but the truth is, when you’re the spouse of someone who has journeyed to the center of addiction’s hell and back, a part of you learns to expect this sort of thing. Or, probably more to the point, never completely unexpect it, no matter how much time, distance, and positive life experience you’ve managed to carve out since the last great catastrophe. Accordingly and ever reluctantly, you wind up with a certain crisis-management skill set, dormant but just below the surface, an adrenaline rush ready to push you through the lion’s share of the fog and noise.

There I was, again rushing into a crisis situation, this time after hearing an unexplained crashing noise — just sure she’d knocked over the dog food storage barrel when she knew better than to attempt to fill it on her own, an argument we’d had a thousand times or maybe just twice — only to find her passed out on the kitchen floor, spread-eagle, her hands and face covered in blood. Quickly, there are the important things — check her breathing, determine what is hurt, take her pulse, wipe away the blood, check her mouth and teeth, keep her awake, catch her when she passes out again (and again and again after that), turn her on her side when she starts to seize, try not to restrain, breathe — but there are also The Questions, just waiting for the first available opportunity to demand answers. Have you taken anything? Are you using again? Is there anything else, anything at all, that I need to know? Even when you feel certain you know the answers, you ask because you’ve been the victim of the unasked question before. You’ve been one to elect willful denial over uncomfortable perseverance and you’ve paid the price with a portion of your soul. So you ask, and then you ask again once more, finding yourself listening more to your own gut’s barometer than to any response offered.

I’m not sure if or when any of that goes away, at least fully. Perhaps it’s no different from the Alcoholics Anonymous admonition that an addict has a life-long disease, manageable and controllable, but always there, lying in wait. If there is to be any truth to that — and believe me, I’m generally the first one to argue the relative truthiness of AA’s many catchphrases — how can my experience, as someone who continues to make the choice to love a recovering addict, reasonably expect something different?

Yet, there is growth to be noted. I’m learning to reach out in the face of these challenges, whether that means calling in re-enforcements and asking for help (thanks, Mom) or posting a simple request for prayers and good thoughts (thanks to the countless ones who responded to my purposely vague Facebook note with love and encouragement). This, as people who have known me longer than either of us would be comfortable admitting will recognize, is not nothing. And of course, there is the simple fact that when hearing that terrible crashing noise this morning, I found myself assuming something humorously inane instead of mentally going to the familiarly dark doomsday place. Well, that’s something, too.

These are admittedly small changes, sure, but this is growth just the same. During those times when it’s most important to find something to be grateful for, sometimes what we have before us — what we often must choose to see — are these incremental blooms.

[Your thoughts and prayers are appreciated as my wife recovers from what the doctors feel reasonably certain were the dramatic effects of severe depletion/dehydration, resulting from an unrelenting flu bug.]

Reason.

She would have been 36 today.

I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe the adage is a comfort to some, knee deep in a shit whirlwind of their own making, but I’m not sure it has any sort of honest application beyond that. To believe that everything happens for a reason — everything — one has to accept that some pretty awful things can (and often do) happen to some pretty wonderful people, in order for us to have one of those Oprah-ish a-Ha! moments later on. I don’t accept that.

Of course, sometimes things happen to us as a direct result of our own actions, the good and bad with their respective benefits and consequences. Sometimes things happen to us because of the actions of others, too, completely out of our control. And sometimes things, well, they just happen.

When our friend Michele was still alive, especially in the last year of her life, we talked a lot about addiction, recovery, and the meaning of it all. We would often try to convince her (or maybe, ourselves) that if she was still alive after everything she’d done and everything she’d been through — a list that was quite impressive in the way that blockbuster horror stories can sometimes be — there must be a reason. God must have a plan, we’d say, something bigger in store for her. It was meant as encouragement, I guess, but it was the sort of encouragement that was tinged with no small amount of guilt. How can you be stupid and die now, kiddo, when God has a plan?

After she died, I thought a lot about those conversations and wondered if she ever really believed any part of them. Was she thumbing her nose at this notion of The Plan or did she, once again, know something that I am only now accepting?

I don’t think her death was some predestined event that happened “for a reason.” I think she died because early in life, some pretty horrific cards were stacked against her, cards that were later drowned in decades of bad decisions, love and loss, addiction and disease, unbelievably close calls, and no small amount of grace. In the absence of a cosmic reason, then, we’re left to find and assign meaning. Meaning is different, I think, because it requires work on our part. It requires healing.

Since Michele’s death, I’ve come to understand my wife’s own struggle with addiction better than I might have otherwise. (Coincidentally, I also fear it more.) I find that I’m more open about the subject with others, too, because I know that shame is one of its deadliest weapons. I hope I’m more appreciative of the select few I let close to my heart, because I know all too well that the future isn’t guaranteed. I’ve also developed special ties to a couple old friends, brought together again by shared grief and love, that I wouldn’t have imagined prior.

Let’s be clear, though. None of those things are reasons. Our friend didn’t die so that I could achieve some paltry self-improvement list. Those things have happened to me because, as grief turns to healing, I am tasked with finding some semblance of meaning in the unthinkable heartbreak.

She would have been 36 today and yet, I am the one finding my way toward a gift. That’s just like her.

Sunset.

I remember the moment vividly. We were on vacation in Hawaii, having the tranquil sort of time that only such a trip allows, when I decided that it was finally time to broach the subject. I was uncharacteristically nervous, in no small part because I knew that we still had a few days left on this small little island — just the two of us — and I wasn’t quite ready for our tranquility to come to an end.

I’d lead with concern. Concern seemed like the appropriate tone. It wasn’t accusatory or necessarily alarmist, and somehow, I thought, it left room for conversation. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she’d have a brilliant explanation and I’d discover that, while my concern had been well received, it was completely unfounded. I’d hope for that. My deeply entrenched denial would certainly be hoping for that.

So, the conversation. I was concerned about the sheer number of prescriptions floating around our home and the variety of doctors willingly prescribing them, as if they were handing out extra handfuls of Halloween candy to eager kids in costume. Sure, she’d been through a series of medical turmoils, but I wondered if the volume of medications might now be making matters worse. I’d mention that I was simply worried that her doctors weren’t coordinating their efforts. I had specific misgivings about the pain medications, too, I’d point out, and their inherently addictive nature. I knew of her past struggles with substances, addictions, and all of the related hells — none of it was any secret, really, although we’d managed to cleverly file it all away as some sort of misguided teenage angst — so surely it was something that we should maybe discuss. You know, casually. Tranquil like.

See, it wasn’t that our lives had become what many would consider unmanageable. (Admitting “unmanageability” is one of the hallmark first steps of any 12-step program, for those not yet indoctrinated.) We were enjoying a beautiful sunset on the beach in Maui, after all. Unmanageability should always look so good. Then again, I also knew that we were fortunate enough to be pretty well insulated from the bumps and bruises that might readily befall someone else in this same situation.

And yet, we were also both cognizant of those undeniable moments of quiet emotional chaos in our lives, although we’d rarely speak of them. We’d become accustomed to sweeping them under the rug and excusing them in some sort of vague fashion, even going so far as to refer to them as part of our relationship’s charm. But the cracks were beginning to show, especially in just the right light, and I was worried that if they weren’t addressed soon, they could become irreparable.

The difficult truth is that the weeks and months that would follow that subdued sunset conversation didn’t fortify those relationship cracks, as I hoped and assumed they would. Instead, that time was like a sledgehammer, full of unrelenting demolition, shattering it all wide open and exposing the ruination that had been hiding just below the surface. It was, for me, a bottomless dark hole that continued to reveal itself with each new day.

There were many times during those couple years when I would have given anything to go back to that night on the island, full of its sailboats and sunsets, and instead, choose to say nothing of my silly concerns. We could have lived a fine life with a few cracks here and there, right? Even now, I’m not sure why I picked that trip, much less that seemingly perfect night, to start us on a journey that would then dominate our lives in ways that were previously unimaginable to either of us. Perhaps there was something safe — something denial-friendly — about having that sort of conversation a few thousand miles away from home. Maybe I thought we could board a plane and, when the time came, just leave the uncertainty behind.

What I know now is that cracks like those aren’t something you simply repair. Unfortunately, there’s no Elmer’s easy-fix project to solidify a fractured life — or relationship — that’s been ravaged by the very real perils of addiction, no matter how “manageable” it may seem to casual passersby. The destruction is somehow necessary. Without it, there can be no rebuilding.

Sometimes still, when I see a particularly beautiful sunset, I think of that night and the “me” that was before all of this. It feels more like a distant relative than a version of myself separated only by a few years of (hard fought) life experience. I wonder what advice would have made a difference to the then-me, what I could have heard or would have accepted that might have prepared me for what was about to come. I think about this whenever people, who find themselves standing on that same brink, ask me for advice.

Do I tell them that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, that their lives are about to be shattered into a thousand little pieces, or that they will be faced with the prospect of reexamining everything they thought they knew to be true? Or, maybe I’ll just tell them to take a moment — just one more fleeting moment — and enjoy the sunset.

The boogeyman.

There’s a monster lurking in the shadows, you’re sure of it. Try as you obsessively might, you find yourself unable to make out its features or even fully anticipate its arrival, but still, you know it’s there, consuming your imagination while remaining just beyond the scope of your understanding. It manages to steal your complete focus at first, sprinkling your day-to-day routine with nagging moments of fear, worry, and dread. After some time, though, when the beast fails to make a full appearance, you begin to convince yourself that you were just seeing something in the shadows that wasn’t really there, a product of the emotional shrapnel left behind in prior wars fought.

Somehow, when the monster finally does reveal himself, you still find yourself jolted by the notion of his arrival. All of the countless hours of fear and dread spent on the anticipation of his alighting are immediately rendered useless, as you first become truly cognizant of the rising tide of a loved one’s relapse.

Relapse is part of recovery. In addiction recovery circles, you’ll hear them say it often. They even print it in publications, seemingly unbothered by the relative permanence of the written word. It’s just one of a number of slogans that are casually bantered around your neighborhood twelve-step group. One day at a time. It works if you work it. Progress not perfection. What’s not to like about those? But relapse is part of recovery? Seriously?

Perhaps the approach is comforting for someone early in recovery. Maybe it’s exactly what they need to hear, a quietly accepted understanding of the limits of our humanity when confronted with the very real perils of addiction. Sure, it’s part of the process, they’ll tell a recovering addict, but be clear, it doesn’t have to mean the end of sobriety. Consider it a new beginning, a starting over, the necessary and expected reboot of an aging franchise. Yet again, one day at a time. Relapse, a part of recovery.

For the non-addict loved one, though, the slogan is not the least bit comforting. In fact, it’s infuriating. Relapse may be “part of recovery,” but it also can be part of death and destruction. Hurt and torment. A crumbling of trust and the loss of relationship. Relapse can, and often does, mean The End. We know this on a very personal level. We’ve experienced — and in many ways, have yet to recover from — the sort of profound loss that can accompany the relapse of another.

In the depths of it, my immediate instinct is to try to piece it all back together like a puzzle, creating a timeline of events and their corresponding emotions, meticulously identifying triggers and signs missed, all in an effort to quantify the inarguable why. What the madness of relapse taught me, though, is that the why is not mine to determine. The unadorned truth is that I cannot control another person’s relapse any more than I can control the same person’s sobriety. It simply will not be micromanaged. Much to my chagrin, again, I have found myself returned to the grand lesson of letting go.

Tangling with one’s boogeyman, whatever that personal creature in the darkness might be, can be an emotional blood sport. The clash can leave us bloodied and broken or it can be a catalyst for an even greater resolve. The choice is ours. With each shadowy altercation, even while I mourn the loss of those small pieces of myself that are inevitably lost in battle, I also discover, hidden in the rubble, the green of previously unrealized growth.